The Fall of the Stone City

By Ismail Kadare

Grove Press. 176 pp. $24

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Reviewed by Rhonda Dickey

It was one of history's worst regime changes: Nazi occupation during World War II, then postwar communism. For millions, one form of suffering gave way to another.

Albanian writer Ismail Kadare crafts The Fall of the Stone City as a microcosm of what happened to the citizens of the small countries that were conquered by big ones. It's a slim fable whose star-crossed characters linger painfully with the reader.

As the novel opens, it's 1943, and Albania, situated between Greece and Yugoslavia, has lost its ally Italy, which has just capitulated.

In the southern city of Gjirokaster (where Kadare was born and raised), two surgeons, unrelated but with the same surname, are the talk of the town. It isn't because of anything Big Dr. Gurameto and Little Dr. Gurameto have done; they simply fill a community need for gossip about a rivalry, whether it exists or not.

"Big Dr. Gurameto was not only older and more imposing than his colleague but had studied gynecology in Germany, definitely a larger and more formidable country than Italy, where Little Dr. Gurameto had trained." Their imagined rivalry "played a significant role in every public event. This was perhaps because the people found it hard to hold two members of the profession in equal esteem and could hardly wait for one to get the better of the other."

Multiple mysteries take shape as The Fall of the Stone City begins: Who fired on a German advance party at the city's entrance? Who raised a white flag of surrender to the Germans? Did the flag-raising even happen?

The central mystery surrounds the dinner party that Big Dr. Gurameto held for Col. Fritz von Schwabe, commander of the German division whose tanks had just rolled into Gjirokaster. Von Schwabe was a close college friend of the doctor's, but though they had been like brothers, the doctor at first doesn't recognize him after all those years.

Gjirokaster is full of theories about what unfolded at the dinner, and about the simultaneous holding of terrified hostages in the city square. Even the hostages' release spawns theories about its connection to the dinner party.

The pitting of neighbors against one another intensifies over the course of the novel, which is bracketed by the 1943 Nazi invasion and the 1953 death of Stalin. It's as though Nazism was done to the residents, and communism is what they did to themselves. The personal becomes the brutally political.

In 1944, as the Germans retreat, the communist partisans move in. It's the beginning of greater peril for both Gurametos, but Big Dr. Gurameto becomes the bigger target.

When both doctors are arrested in early 1953, two young investigators from the city take the case. Shaqo Mezini and Arian Ciu are graduates of the Dzerzhinsky secret police academy in Moscow. "Their faces were pale, their ties tightly knotted and their overcoats extremely long. The godfather of the secret police who gave his name to the academy had proverbially worn a coat like this and had said, 'Long coat, short shrift.' "

Hospital records are pored through as the doctors are interrogated in a dungeon in the city's old castle. Cleared of one set of allegations regarding their practice of medicine, the doctors are confronted with new accusations. The questions turn to the dinner party in 1943.

It isn't just the dinner party that Shaqo Mezini is fixated on. He takes Gjirokaster's obsession with the status of the doctors, particularly Big Dr. Gurameto, even further: "The investigator's secret dream was to become a person like this, held in regard by everybody but not regarding anybody himself."

Little Dr. Gurameto becomes an appendage (all too literally) to the case the authorities build against Big Dr. Gurameto, at complete variance with the facts disclosed. The doctors, innocent of all accusations, face their predicament with bewilderment and incomprehension till the end. And then, with the fall of communism, and the opening of secret records, the mysteries are solved, and the hand of destiny is revealed.

Kadare, who is considered a Nobel literature prize contender, has an understated, elegiac style that throws the events into relief. In a 1998 Paris Review interview, he said:

"There are two kinds of linguistic richness: the first is similar to that of precious stones - metaphors, similes, little discoveries - the second is in the whole. The great felicity is a perfect mixture of the two, when a text is beautifully written and the content is substantial, too."

Like Kadare's 1970 novel The Siege, a remarkable story of a grinding Ottoman assault on a Christian fortress in 15th-century Albania, The Fall of the Stone City contains both kinds of linguistic richness. And, like The Siege, it tells of domination that doesn't last. The Ottoman siege fails, but so, eventually, does Christian control, to be replaced by Ottoman rule that later crumbled.

Fascism fails and so, eventually, does communism. The tragedy for Kadare's characters is that they can't hold on that long.

Rhonda Dickey is a former Inquirer editor.